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Tribes Among Biggest Campaign Contributors

The number one donor in the last U.S. presidential election cycle wasn’t a health-care lobbyist, a tobacco company or a tech giant. It was a small group of tribes in California determined to protect their interests.

People who make a living complaining about tribal issues have more ammunition thanks to new data that say tribes, especially those in the Golden State, are among the biggest donors to state and federal political campaigns. Those tribes were mostly pushing tribal gaming, which has turned out to be the best tool in their arsenal for promoting tribal sovereignty (while making them rich, too).

With a backlash all but certain, Indian country will be forced to explain that tribes have every right to contribute to the American political system to protect their sovereign interests, and would be foolish not to. But there is a second battle here—and this one has to do with the self-identity of Indians and what, if any, obligation the richest among them have to protect the welfare of less financially fortunate tribal citizens and promote a pan-Indian legacy.

A recent analysis of state and federal campaign donations by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. found that in the campaign cycles of 2007 and 2008, four of the top 10 largest donors in the U.S. were tribes and tribal interests in California. The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and a tribally organized group called Tribes for Fair Play spent a combined total of $129.8 million on state and national political campaigns; together they donated more than double that of the top national donor, the National Education Association, which spent $56.3 million. All of them are big gaming tribes (except for Tribes for Fair Play), and all of them want to protect their newly built empires. Beyond the top 10, California tribes had three more donors in the top 50 and another three in the top 1,000. Non-California tribes in the top 1,000 were the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Maine; and the Seminole Nation of Florida.

“It’s just awesome—wow! This shows how far we have come,” was the reaction of tribal campaign strategist Kalyn Free when she sifted through the numbers. And she meant awesome in that Indians for most of American history have had practically zero clout when it came to the political system set up by colonists, politicos and lobbyists and now, clearly, have plenty, if not yet enough. Free said, “Tribes have nothing to be embarrassed about in flexing their political muscle.”

For much of the past 20 years, the mainstream press, campaign-finance watchdog groups and anti-Indian interests have presented big donations by tribes in a negative light, as if something nefarious is going on. But there’s much more to the story, and American history plays a major role in it. Indians weren’t allowed to vote until 1924, which was a good thing for American politicians, who wanted to limit tribal sovereignty, since all the Indians in the United States back then would have been a formidable voting bloc. When they were enfranchised, they were largely fractured (mentally and physically) due to intentional trauma inflicted by a country that had tried to stamp them out altogether; in other words, they had the vote, but they had neither the inclination nor ability to use it, and they definitely didn’t have any extra money lying around to get the ear of their state senator by making a political contribution. That changed dramatically with the advent of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which allowed a handful of the hundreds of U.S. tribes to become wealthy—and thus more willing and able to contribute money in an attempt to influence a system that had tried to exterminate them.

After the money started rolling in for the lucky few, it didn’t take long for lobbyists to begin telling tribal leaders where to “invest” to (supposedly) have the greatest impact. Donating to state and federal politicos who could help impede the long erosion of tribal sovereignty and self-determination by advancing gaming and other economically focused legislation soon became a multimillion-dollar effort. And the information tribal leaders began receiving about their donations was complicated. Said Philip Baker-Shenk, an Indian policy lawyer with Holland & Knight: “Federal campaign law is very confusing. On the one hand, we tell tribes it is illegal for them to donate in order to get a policy result or program decision. On the other hand, they are told that contributions open up opportunities for access to decision-makers.”

Along the way, some donors lost their focus on tribal sovereignty altogether, instead making financial gain the main ideal to which they were devoted. “Campaign contributions, like money, can’t buy you love, but tribes are told that money opens doors and ears,” said Baker-Shenk, “And for tribal leadership long used to being marginalized as mere fleeting afterthoughts, attention by the powerful can be as dizzyingly addictive.” At the same time, he added, “Politicians, and their campaign handlers, have voracious appetites and overactive metabolisms. It seems like there is never enough money.”

Tom Rodgers, owner of the Carlyle Consulting lobbying firm and a citizen of the Blackfeet Tribe, said there are plenty of lessons to be learned from the rise of tribes as a major player in American politics. “Think about it—the Native Americans who lived in California around the time of the 1849 gold rush were pushed to the brink of genocide. And today, Native Americans in that state and throughout the country have become major participants in the political process.

“It’s just too bad the U.S. isn’t very good at remembering history,” said Rodgers, who grows frustrated when he sees reports that assume tribal money is dirty money—despite the fact that tribes and tribal leaders must follow campaign finance laws, just like everyone else. Like when Glenn Marshall, former chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, pleaded guilty in 2009 of violating campaign finance law and embezzling tribal dollars, and was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in federal prison.

As always, though, it’s the stories of wrongdoing that make the lasting impressions, Rodgers said, even though they are far from the norm. Ironically, the case that made the American public have a negative view of tribal donations is an example of how tribal interests arose to root out a problem. While some people, including members of Congress, think the Jack Abramoff scandal involved tribes doing something wrong, it was Abramoff and his associates who broke the law by bribing politicians with tribal money, while they were also defrauding their Indian clients. Tribes Abramoff was bilking blew the whistle, which led to him pleading guilty to three felonies and spending years in federal prison, but for some reason the tarnish on tribes remains.

Some politicians—even those thought of as friends to Indian country—have fostered the dirty money perception by not accepting donations from tribes. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, won’t take tribal dollars because he, “believes that tribes can spend their money in other ways,” according to one of his spokesmen in 2007, yet he still accepts money from many other lobbying groups, which can, presumably, also spend their money in other ways.

Others act as though tribes are doing something wrong by making large donations. When Arianna Huffington ran for the California governorship in 2003, she labeled a $2 million donation from San Diego County’s Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians to one of her opponents “legalized bribery.”

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One slur tactic has been to tie Indian donations directly to gaming—as if every dollar every tribe spends on contributions is meant to promote the endless proliferation of slot machines. Whenever Indian country leaders try to get land placed into trust by the federal government detractors act as though every parcel is designated for a casino. The reality is that most tribal leaders simply want land back that was stolen from their people. “If anyone wants to be critical of what Indian nations are doing, then they better be critical of the entire system in which money flows through American politicians and political parties,” said Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter. Before Porter was his government’s leader, he advocated against tribal citizens participating in the American political system, including voting, but he now believes tribal contributions are an “effective way to support politicians who are supportive of tribal sovereignty.” Before he was elected, his tribe donated approximately $352,000 in 2007 and 2008, according to the data gathered by the Center for Responsive Politics, placing it in the top 1,500 of political donors.

A major goal of some Indians is to correct the misperceptions. Free said, a bigger picture exists in the latest federal and state campaign contribution data, which indicate that less than two dozen tribes have enough money to be real players in the American political game. “We’re looking at a handful out of 565 federally recognized tribes, and many tribal citizens struggle to survive every day,” she points out. “Attention to the wealthy tribes really misses the big picture.”

“The amount of tribal money that goes into state and federal campaigns is a drop in the bucket compared to the total amount,” added Carl Artman, former Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs for the Department of the Interior. “At the same time, federal funding has gone down for some tribal programs, and tribes have certainly been subject to more attacks on their sovereignty by states and local governments. If there’s some special favor being curried by Indian tribes through this increase in donations, I don’t see it. In fact, I would say Indian tribes, through these donations, are just barely keeping their head above water.”

Another reality is that the financial influence of even the wealthiest tribes is expected to dramatically wane as a result of the January 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down campaign finance laws that created contribution limits on major corporations and unions. “There is no way that tribes, or anyone else, can compete with the level of money that these well-funded interests will throw into the political process,” said Daniel McCool, a political science professor at the University of Utah and co-author of the 2007 book Native Vote: American Indians, the Voting Rights Act, and the Right to Vote.

If tribal campaign donations do end up having less of an impact, Baker-Shenk said community giving will become paramount. “More and more tribes are finding that they earn lots of goodwill and attention by providing financial support to projects of benefit to their surrounding communities,” he said. “Tribal contributions like these may gain as much attention as campaign contributions, especially as other government revenues dry up.”

For tribes that do participate in the donor game, Jerome Levine, a lawyer with Holland & Knight who practices Indian law, said they have found it useful to get the message out that they are playing by the rules. “Many tribes have been self-reporting long before it was required by the law—tribes have gone above and beyond in being responsive to the law.” Along those lines, the California Tribal Business Alliance, which includes some of the top tribal donors in the state, released a position statement in 2006 noting that it supports the reporting of tribal campaign contributions. The idea is that tribes have nothing to hide, and the group believes that full disclosure is in tribes’ best interests.

Tribes are also working to help the public understand that there is no “tribal loophole” in campaign finance, said Christopher DeLacy, a partner with Holland & Knight. This misperception can be traced back to the fact that tribes since the early 2000s have not been bound by aggregate restrictions on donating to candidates because they are classified with a special status under campaign finance law. Those who see this law as a loophole often fail to understand the unique political status of Indian tribes as sovereign governments, DeLacy said, and these rules were established in such a way that distinguishes tribes from corporations, lobbyists, and unions. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) has long argued that Indian tribes are different from corporations or unions and should be treated differently when it comes to campaign giving.

The debate about tribal campaign contributions also involves issues of self-reflection, which has forced some of the wealthier tribes to ponder how their influence (and affluence) affects perceptions of Indian country as a whole. “It can be frustrating to have the richest tribes influencing the system,” Free said—both for Indians who want to advocate agendas that may be different than the richer tribes’ desires, and for those who just don’t believe large donations improve things in Indian country as a whole. Retired Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-South Dakota, former chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, is in the latter camp; last December he said he didn’t think it was worthwhile for a tribe to spend heavily on campaign donations and lobbyists. He believes tribal leaders are their own best advocates, and they can often make their cases without the need for financial clout.

Porter believes contributions are necessary. “The reality is that in America, more money equals more speech and louder speech, and that same concept applies to Indian country,” he said. “There are a few dozen Indian nations that have disproportionate resources, and I think it carries with it extra responsibility.” Along those lines, he said some Indian nations, including his own, are currently working to build a “Sovereign Nations Alliance” political action committee that can work as an umbrella to support issues that impact the greater good.

Isn’t worrying about the greater good a pretty big chore? “It’s an extra burden,” said Porter, “and it’s the right thing to do. No matter how much we think of our tribal nations as separate and unique, the American people who surround us think of us as the same. In very practical ways, our interests often have to be aligned.”

In deciding how much is enough to be giving, Artman, who used to be the chief legal counsel for the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin and now works as a lawyer with Godfrey & Kahn, said tribal leaders spend a lot of time analyzing their budgets to determine whether they can afford to give, and how they can be strategic about their giving. They also look at the overall picture of who is advocating for what in Indian country; for instance, if NCAI is spending a lot of time advocating in front of Congress on a particular issue, a tribal leader may feel he or she can focus resources elsewhere, he said.

Rodgers said that on the moral side of the equation, tribal leaders should perform “due diligence to determine their motivations” and realize that they need to “talk the talk” when it comes to taking responsibility as sovereign nations with special political status in the U.S. “Our story is the best thing we have to encourage support,” he said. “If we lose our story, we have lost everything.” And it’s important, he added, not to let the entire story of Indian country get mired down in the corruption that can come with trying to influence the American political system.

“The true measuring stick is not how much money you contributed,” Rodgers said, “it’s how do you want to be remembered?”